The un-horse race: political coverage is broken and we must chart a new path

Announcing The Gonzo Primary project.

One year from today, Iowa Democrats will caucus and the maelstrom of the 2020 presidential primary will get its first votes in the books.

In a this-makes-me-feel-old way, I have covered presidential primaries in some way every year since 2008. In ‘08 I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, at The Daily Progress and drew the Obama rally assignment when people were flipping their shit over him it was clear something different was happening. In ‘12, I was at the Washington Post and contributed from my hinterlands bureau; most memorably, for me, helping to take the pulse of the nation on July 4 with a team of reporters. In ‘16, I trailed Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, doing some typical campaign reporting along the insider-y themes that her campaign had struggled there last time and asking about whether she would she make it again.

Political coverage as it is has put us in a wag-the-dog feedback loop of reality. Voters do care about “electability” and “like-ability” because taking stock of these metrics are a constant drumbeat from mainstream media and coverage of the insider-y parlor game Politico has mastered. That game does matter. I saw this in its rawest form as a statehouse reporter in South Carolina, where the politics of petty grievances drive big decisions and who has power amongst partisan elites more than any reasoned policy debate.

That said, the trap the media and far too many voters fall for is the spin offered by both parties as representative of reality. Ideas and candidates should be evaluated on their merits, not on falsehoods from the two parties jousting for power, intra-party feuds or the personality-driven horse race the media laps up. Even if pettiness consumes the D.C. jousting match, voters have to do their best to see through it; it is precisely that kind of Washington insider’s obsession that I believe has driven historic mistrust in journalists and the media at large.

Politics offers us a rare chance to check the barometer in understanding the world as it is, the good, the bad and the ugly. Presidential races offer us both a window and a mirror on American life and the ways in which society is working and, of course, the ways in which it’s not.

The election is going to get ugly and it already feels all consuming. But it is a vital time to take stock and it is as consequential as the hype will portray it. Instead of focusing on core issues and problems, we will all become obsessed with the who’s up and who’s down that the national media narrative will drive.

That said, I don’t want to rail against my colleagues in the media without at least trying to provide an alternative.

The term “gonzo,” associated with the journalistic musings of the often drug-addled Hunter S. Thompson, doesn’t completely encapsulate a forthcoming project to bridge this divide, but it comes close. The Gonzo Primary project’s (working title, official launch date TBD) mission is an attempt to take political journalism out of its box, throw it away and start anew, and maybe have a shot or two and glance at upside down. For me, that doesn’t mean taking a bunch of mescaline and following around Trump’s campaign; it does mean getting beyond horse race coverage and using this moment in American life to see where we are and as my project partner Justin Glawe puts it, ask Where Do We Go From Here?

So what does meaningful journalism that goes against the tide look like? It’s easy to criticize, harder yet to create. I want to create. We are going to take the plunge, relying at some point soon on readers for donations to cover expenses and storing our pennies for the primaries and caucuses that begin in Iowa next year on February 3, 2020.

We’ll be completely transparent about where the money goes and how it’s spent.

There’s a lot to figure out and we don’t quite know yet what this looks like as it’s a volunteer effort starting with more questions than answers. That’s why we’re getting started now, and we have a few months to prepare for the coming onslaught of noise.

Here are a few of our initial thoughts on organizing principles about what matters in reporting on politics and primaries that The Gonzo Primary will explore:

  • Involve YOU - readers/audience. Tell us what you want. Tell us the questions you have and the issues you want covered.

  • Find out about life on the ground in states where primaries are occurring. What’s happening in these communities? As the candidates smile for the cameras what’s happening behind closed doors and in City Hall? Most importantly, what is happening in the lives of dispossessed Americans of all stripes? The homeless men sleeping outside the campaign rally, the guys at the bar who don’t want any part of any candidate or campaign, anyone and everyone who considers themselves forgotten — what do they think, and why isn’t anyone listening?

  • Explore candidates’ record on things these communities care about. Do they even have one? If they don’t what policies are they proposing to help those communities? Policies, not personalities, should drive our political choices but often don’t.

  • Dive into data to demystify campaigns and issues. This is something traditional media often does well but not until election night. What investments do candidates hold? What legislation have they worked on? Who is financing their campaigns? No voter can make an informed decision without knowing as much as possible about these three issues.

Findings from City Bureau pointed out that voters for local elections — and I think this applies more broadly — don’t necessarily want length or depth. They want “concise, data-driven coverage of issues, such as infographics, voting scorecards.”

The Gonzo Primary won’t do it all, but we’ll identify a mode and a method, try things, keep it loose and do journalism that matters to the forgotten every day voter. Want to get involved? Not a journalist? That’s cool, too. We want strong thinkers, writers, illustrators and anyone who wants to help chart what this looks like to join us as long as you don’t have a relationship with one of the campaigns. While we won’t pay yet we’re devising a reader-funded strategy to try to cover expenses and pay for journalism. It won’t be easy.

Let me know any feedback at Borden.Jeremy@gmail.com. I will begin to cover these issues through this regular Untold Story newsletter focused on key Democratic primary states in a bid to do my part in shifting the narrative from a D.C.-based personality contest to something more substantial.